Monday, February 07, 2011

February is Black History Month

I was in Ghana for the first time in 6 years, in January. It was a wonderful trip and I had the chance to catch up on some reading while there. The three titles I enjoyed the most all make for excellent Black History Month reading.

My favourite of the pile I shlepped around was The Memory of Love, a novel exploring modern-day Sierra Leone. Author Aminatta Forna tells the story through the voices of three different men whose lives intersect in surprising ways. Elias Cole, the former dean of the local university, lies in the hospital, in desperate need of a lung transplant that will never happen. He reminisces on his life before the civil war, sharing his memories Adrian Lockhart, a British psychologist, who is assisting with Post-Traumatic-Stress programs at the hospital. Adrian meets Kai, a gifted young surgeon, and the two become friends. Adrian becomes fascinated with one of his patients, a middle aged woman, who wanders the country. The three men are connected to each other by more than just memories and friendship.

As the story unfolds, they all share a relationship with the same woman. This is a richly crafted novel that took my breath away. I appreciated the delicate way that Forna shares the affects of the civil war. Instead of dripping each page in horrific memory, she explores a few disturbing situations with careful precision. If you enjoyed the masterpiece Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (one of my favourite books), then please give this a try. If you do, let me know as I am eager to hear what other readers think of this novel. Personally I think it gives Cutting for Stone some serious competition!

On a lighter note, Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is a treat. This light-cup-of-tea-read reminds me of The No. 1 Ladies Dectective Agency series. This is a tale of baking confections and behind each cake lies a story. Baker Angel Tungaraza busies herself with her customer’s orders: Ken Akimoto, her best customer; his lovesick driver Bosco; Odile, an AIDS worker whose love life Angel has taken a keen interest in and more. Angel works her magic, helping to solve their problems as they enjoy her edible works of art. By the end of this heartwarming story all the loose ends are tied, problems mostly solved, and Angel’s heartaches put to rest. If you are eager for a light yet intelligent read, this is a good choice.

Of the three novels, Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez, is perhaps the only novel that is truly “Black History”. The novel takes place in Ohio, a free territory before the Civil War. Tawawa House is an idyllic summer retreat for Southern white Massa’s and their black slave mistresses. Lizzie, Reenie and Sweet are regulars at the resort, building strong friendships and support for each other over the years. When Mawu comes, things start to change with her fearless talk of running away. To run away would mean leaving everything including their children. It also means freedom from the emotional and psychological bonds that bind them to their masters. This engaging page-turner reminded me of The Help by Kathryn Stockett. Even though The Help takes place in the 1960’s, both books explore similar issues. - Bronwyn

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